But Ruskin was also—as he announces in the first line of Praeterita—“a violent Tory of the old school.” He makes this sound like a merely literary fact—the “old school” is “Walter Scott’s… and Homer’s.” In fact, his political economy—like that of his contemporary Thomas Carlyle—was essentially feudal, vested in a far-reaching faith in inequality. His sexuality was mystifying and damnable. He was anti-modern, anti-scientific, anti-Darwin. He was anti almost anything that didn’t antecede his birth, except, perhaps, the novels of Walter Scott and the work of J.M.W. Turner. Considered all together, his beliefs are usefully described by one of Rudyard Kipling’s characters as “mixed pickles.” Ruskin is the spoiled child of the nineteenth century—stringently, evangelically spoiled, but spoiled nevertheless.
What matters is his sight, his sense of particularity, his love of detail. That is what fills Modern Painters, The Stones of Venice, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, and even—strangely--Fors Clavigera, his remarkable late series of ninety-six monthly letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain. Reading Ruskin, you begin to think that he more or less lived at the tip of his pencil, in the nib of his pen, for he was always writing. His entire sensibility seems to flow into every word he inscribes. Ruskin’s manner of being in the world would call to mind the image that opens George Eliot’s Adam Bede—“With this drop of ink at the end of my pen I will show you the roomy workshop of Mr. Jonathan Burge”—except that Ruskin disliked Eliot. In Ruskin’s drop of ink, you can see his world with astonishing clarity and fascinating distortion. And you see the man himself staring back at you, balefully, as he tends to do in his self-portraits.
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor